A cryptic letter dated 18 March 2020, issued by the newly created Department of Military Affairs, appeared on social media platforms last week. It gave the first formal indication of some “concrete reforms” being initiated by the department headed by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat.
The subject of the letter was about the optimisation measures to be adopted with respect to Annual Major Works Programme, which covers the habitat and infrastructure-related construction projects of the three services of the armed forces — Army, Navy and Air Force. But the measures specified in the letter, by implication, indirectly signalled far-reaching reforms to ensure economy of expenditure and reduction of manpower. The Department of Military Affairs (DMA) has not denied the letter.
The DMA letter is a typical example of bureaucratic approach wherein the need for economy of expenditure is viewed in isolation, disregarding a host of other factors and operational efficiency eventually leading to higher expenditure.
As per the optimisation measures, there should be one officer mess per station instead of 15-20 at the scale of one per unit; scale of Junior Commissioned Officers’ clubs should be reduced to 50 per cent of authorised strength; the number of cook houses for ‘Other Ranks’ should be reduced to only two per unit instead of four-five authorised per subunit of 125-150 soldiers; medical inspection rooms/other ranks’ institutes/family welfare centres/weapon simulator rooms to be planned on the scale of one per station instead of one per major unit; armoured vehicle garages to be in tin sheds instead of concrete structures; and wheeled vehicles to be parked in temporary tin sheds.
It is not known whether a separate policy letter has been issued covering the manpower and expenditure saved as a result of the above-mentioned optimisation measures, the implications for transition from peace to field/mobilisation for battle, and whether these measures are only for future works or part of overall reforms.
Officers, JCOs, and OR messes
Units and formations in the armed forces are organised and structured to operationally and administratively operate as self-reliant independent entities with focus on deployment for war at a short notice. Given our threat scenarios and operational strategy even from peace stations, units and formations are expected to mobilise within 24 hours during war times and also conduct annual rehearsals and collective training closer to operational areas.
The dining of officers, JCOs and Other Ranks is organised in officers’ messes, JCOs’ messes/clubs and dining halls with attached cook houses respectively. In operational areas and in battle, except for unit headquarters, all ranks are dependent on common cook houses. The officers’ messes and JCO clubs also house the bachelor officers/JCOs or those living without families in peace stations. The officers’ messes, and to some extent the JCO messes, have also become the repository of unit traditions in form of trophies, memorabilia and archives.
As for older units, these institutions have become virtual museums. They also reflect the hierarchy of rank structure, and attendant perks/privileges, which are part of military culture and functioning. Other Ranks’ dining halls are also organised to promote sub-unit ethos and optimising the numbers at the scale of 100-150 soldiers beyond which these are difficult to manage.
Over the last 50 years, most modern armies have done away with officers’ messes and JCO/sergeant’ messes on financial grounds and to promote egalitarianism. Even the British Army, from which we inherited this culture, is in the process of introducing radical reforms such as doing away with the regimental system and the mess culture. To this extent, there is a case to shut down the officers’ messes/JCO clubs and have an optimum, common number of messes for all ranks in each unit.
However, the benefit of this reform has to be weighed against the adverse effect on traditions, ethos and culture of the Indian armed forces. Also, the peacetime structures have to adapt to field/battle conditions at 24-hour notice keeping in mind our threats and strategy. It may be mentioned that similar optimisation with respect to officers’ messes was tried in the early 1970s only to be given up.
Optimisation on station basis
Apart from the institutions mentioned above, the optimisation of other institutions and facilities on station basis has to be examined keeping in mind the number of soldiers, travel time within the station, and field/battle requirements.
Other Ranks institutes, medical inspection rooms, and simulator infrastructure can easily be optimised as per station or sector basis. In some armies, officers’ clubs and Other Ranks institutes have been done away with on financial grounds and availability and affordability of commercial facilities. However, in our context, security constraints have to be kept in mind as well.
Garages for equipment
It is a popular military dictum that it is not the gun but the man behind the gun that matters most in a battle. But the best soldier is of no use if the gun is in a poor functional state.
The specifications of buildings and garages for storage and maintenance of costly military equipment have been scientifically laid down. Any tinkering with these specifications will be at the cost of reducing the life of the equipment and a classic case of being paisa wise and rupee foolish.
There is some merit in parking non-specialist wheeled vehicles in the open or in temporary sheds, but for specialist and armoured vehicles, and other combat equipment, it is best to adhere to scientific specifications.
Flawed method for reform
Fifty years ago, due to shortage of accommodation, a large number of units were housed in temporary tents. Soon, the cost of replacement of tents due to wear and tear became prohibitive. Tents were replaced by temporary single-brick and asbestos-roof shelters with a life span of 7-10 years. Budget constraints led to indefinite extension of their life wherein the cost of maintenance eventually became more than the original cost and over 20 years, the total cost was more than the cost of permanent accommodation.
The only difference after the creation of the DMA seems to be that the services now have to deal with ill-thought-out orders issued by the same old bureaucracy, though in a new avatar. The letter was signed by an ‘under secretary’ conveying the orders of “Secretary, DMA & CDS” – ironically, a demotion in status for a former Chief of Army Staff who ranks above a secretary to the government of India.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.